Chvrches: "Gun" / "Recover" / "The Mother We Share"
from The Bones Of What You Believe (Virgin; 2013)
By Corey Beasley | 9 July 2013
Even in a world where we’ve gotten used to time-traveling back to the ‘80s as a matter of course in modern pop music, the first bars of Chvrches’ “Gun” rip a hole in the space-time continuum big enough for a fleet of DeLoreans. Koji Kondo synths bounce off of tightly compressed 808 kicks, while Lauren Mayberry’s girlish, crystalline vocals hit with equal parts yearning and diffidence, the sonic equivalent of a Corey Haim poster pushpinned above a teen’s bed. By the time the chorus rushes in with clean bass tones and live drums, we’re back in more contemporary territory, but “Gun” still has stronger notes of Berlin or Til Tuesday than you’ll typically find in electropop revivalism.
That’s what makes the line on Chvrches so confusing: finding a review of the band’s work that doesn’t mention the Knife would be like finding, say, a review of Purity Ring’s work that doesn’t mention the Knife. Granted, both Purity Ring and Chvrches update the Swedish duo’s immediately recognizable template in similar ways—an appropriation of trap’s brittle snare taps, chopped ‘n’ looped vocals serving equally percussive and melodic purposes—the shared DNA seems much more tangential for Chvrches. The Knife and Purity Ring want, to varying extents, to make conspicuously “difficult” pop music. (See: “Cartographist”; the Swedish carnies and trapeze artists the Knife apparently take on tour with them.) Chvrches has no interest whatsoever in muddying the field of its pop delights. Instead, the band follows a winning formula designed to maximize synth-fueled dopamine release. The trio swears by two fundamentals of pop songcraft: 1) never settle for a one-part chorus when you can have a two-part chorus, and, 2) the bridge is almost always the best part of the song. In other words, Chvrches has more in common with Gary Numan than Karin Dreijer Andersson.
Go back to “Gun” and its undeniable hook—think about how easy it is to envision an amphitheatre full of people bouncing in unison to that bottled-lightning rush. Now, check the band’s finest song, “Recover,” around its fifty-second mark and let another chorus lift you out of your armchair like it was no trouble at all. These are radio-ready hooks, effortless and bright but given emotional heft through Mayberry’s openhearted lyrics—pop in its best form, physically exciting and emotionally communicative. In both cases, those hooks are the second halves of a two-part chorus, barreling skyward off of the momentum of the initial—and totally separate—melodies and beats. “Gun” teases with a few bars of steady synths while Mayberry coos with venom, “Did it make you feel so clever? / Did you wear it on your sleeve?”, before her bandmates tap the brakes by cutting the beat to a single kick drum. “Recover” plays the same trick, with the beat and instrumentation behind Mayberry’s gorgeous, melancholy hook—“And if I recover / would you be my comfort?”—surging forward into a second movement to buoy the song even higher. “I’ll give you one more chance to say / We can change or part ways,” she sings, the brief bit of optimism mirroring the song’s short uptick in energy, only to slow again as she realizes, “And you take what you need / And you know you don’t need me.” Both songs have dynamic emotional trajectories in choruses that last for less than a minute. That’s some serious pop precision, and something the Knife and Purity Ring often purposely deemphasize in their music. Chvrches wants to write hits.
The band’s focus on the bellwether element of a classic pop song, the bridge, ensures they’ll do so. A bridge needs to make a chorus—often unchanged from its initial repetitions—feel new and forceful in a way that makes you want to listen to a track again, right away, to recapture its energy. Chvrches apparently found a master class on the technique, maybe taught in some Glaswegian castle keep, and the band applies the same fat-free efficiency to its bridges as it does to its choruses. Its break-out track, “The Mother We Share,” gains almost all of its poignancy in its bridge, as Mayberry’s plaintive voice takes center stage over a suddenly quiet mix, her simple observation of “And when it all fucks up / You put your head in my hands,” a surprisingly moving moment of empathy that gives new life to the earnestness of the track’s chorus in its final refrain. “Recover” mimics the technique in its bridge, with digitized male vocals weaving around Mayberry’s tender “You know you don’t need me,” the line gaining a new emphasis in all that comparative quietude. You should be able to guess by now whether “Gun” also features a bridge that cuts the beat to highlight the heart-on-sleeve quality of Mayberry’s voice and lyrics. But you should also be able to guess whether or not it works brilliantly, even if you see it coming. We don’t need every band to break new ground or revolutionize pop songwriting with each successive EP—sometimes you just need them to do it better than most.